It’s 30 years since I first came into contact with the work of Ken Simons at Tate Liverpool and I must have been witness to his handiwork many times since then. Not that I knew it at the time.

For three decades – ever since the Albert Dock gallery opened in the spring of 1988 – Simons has worked as an art handler at the venue, overseeing the installation of exhibitions, working closely with curators and artists, and being one of the few people for whom ‘Please Do Not Touch’ signs don’t count.

Now, as the pioneering gallery celebrates 30 years since it first led the cultural charge away from London, it has handed Simons the ultimate artistic retirement gift. Rather than waving him off with a carriage clock and an oversized greetings card, he has been given the chance to curate his own Tate Liverpool exhibition by plucking his favourite works from the Tate’s own hefty collection. The result is Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen, a display that occupies the venue’s groundfloor gallery until June.

Mark Rothko, 1903–1970 Light Red Over Black 1957 Oil paint on canvas 2306 x 1527 x 38 mm Tate. Purchased 1959 © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2018 While I like to imagine that Simons rampaged through the Tate vaults in the manner of an adrenaline-zapped Supermarket Sweep contestant, everything about this beautifully conceived exhibition suggests his approach was rather more thoughtful and sedate. Filtered through his mind, art appears to be contemplative and quiet, a means of revealing perpetual truths while leaving plenty more unsaid.

Colours in Ken’s Show are generally muted while landscapes shift and blur into abstraction. There are air-kissing sculptural forms and brutish encounters between rough wood and slate. And as for representations of the men, women and children who occupy our planet, this is a world in which the human presence is better felt and not seen.

J.M.W. Turner's Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 being installed at Tate Liverpool © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek When we see artworks in galleries, we seldom consider the route they took to that hook on the wall, but Ken’s Show invites us to think about the mechanics of exhibition installation even as we are beguiled by the poetry of the art. Not that this is an instructional show in that sense but, in his notes, Simons often mentions how much he has enjoyed his professional interaction with certain artists’ works.

His relationship with Phillip King’s formidable sculpture Within seems to have been particularly fulfilling, with the physical act of reconstructing the artist’s 3D puzzle giving him a unique appreciation of its tumbling yet frozen forms. Presumably there is less bump and grind involved in the hanging of a painting, but Simons’ kid-glove reverence and deep professional gaze have given him an evident love for pictures that wrap space in a similarly mysterious way. Graham Sutherland’s idyllic and yet inescapably ominous Entrance to a Lane is a case in point.

J.M.W. Turner, 1775–1851 Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 Oil paint on canvas 914 x 1219 mm Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photography © Tate 2017 Elsewhere, Turner’s sea mists dazzle and Rothko’s foggy paint pulsates, while Howard Hodgkin’s Rain and Ivon Hitchens’ Divided Oak Tree No. 2 combine the dense greys and chromatic bursts of a muggy electric storm. There is sunshine to be found in Ken’s Show – Turner’s Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands features an impressive atmospheric glare – but the dominant notes are mud browns, rainy greys, brief bursts of dusty light through the gathering storm clouds ahead.

Prior to his move to the Tate’s sparkling new Liverpool gallery in 1988, Simons had already served 13 years as an art handler at its original London base, and the exhibition is ample evidence that he certainly wasn’t sleeping on the job.

Ken’s Show could so easily have been a greatest hits mix-up – a Desert Island Pics if you like – but instead, Simons has put together a pleasingly personal selection that is as coherent and considered as it is fascinating to explore.

By Damon Fairclough

(Main image: J.M.W. Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth exhibited 1842 being installed at Tate Liverpool © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek)


Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen is at Tate Liverpool until June 17, 2018. For more information, click here.